Reactions – Philippe Hiberty

Philippe C. Hiberty is in the Department of Chemisty at Université de Paris-Sud, and works on method development and applications of valence bond theory

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

As a student, I was fascinated by quantum mechanics and especially the electronic structure of atoms and molecules. I followed the lectures of Professor Lionel Salem, who was a fantastic teacher, and from then on my dream was to enter his lab and do theoretical research.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be and why?

I sure would be a motorcycle mechanic, or even better I would work in a motor development department. Opening a motor, finding what’s wrong, tuning it, is as creative as doing research.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

I am working on specific applications where valence bond theory can give insight while molecular orbital theory cannot. I do hope that this will lead to better understanding of chemical reactions and molecular interactions, and especially I hope to convince the chemists that both theories are complementary rather than rival.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

President Barack Obama, for sure. Not because he is supposed to be the most powerful man in the world — he certainly is not. But he is a true visionary, and he has restored the picture of United States that we, the French, are attached to: a country of tolerance, intelligence, freedom and progress.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

My last experiment dates back to the times when I was a student. I was such a terrible experimentalist that it is better for everyone’s security that I became a theoretician.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

Book: « A la recherche du Soi » (In search of the Self) by Arnaud Desjardins.

Music album: Sonatas and Partitas for violin of J.S. Bach (including the celebrated Chaconne), played by Hilary Hahn

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

Roald Hoffmann. He has beautifully demonstrated the importance of quantum mechanics in chemistry, and he tremendously helped our understanding of chemical reactions and molecular structure by means of simple models. And those who know him personally know that he is even much more than a great chemist.

Materials Girl: Where did October go?!

[This is posted on behalf of Materials Girl, who wrote this on a plane last Monday]

Time flies when you’re away from the lab and working across the country in an entirely new habitat! Spending three months in a high-security military lab showed me another side of research – give or take the differences in being a summer intern versus a full-time government employee… Fast forward past my eye-opening summer and the new school year is in full swing. Hoards of undergraduates line the halls while beleaguered grad students* trot amidst them. It’s time to buckle down, start another new project, teach new classes, maintain my lab & student groups, squeeze in conferences, and pump out publications! With a first author paper now under my belt (!!), I am eager to maintain productivity and graduate in style. At least, that’s the plan.

*Speaking of which, PhD comics made a movie – and I’m one of the extras!

Lately, YouKnowWho has frequently been away from the office, so my TA duties have been extended to super-facilitator/undergraduate-wrangler. Also, as the ‘Lab Mom’ and recently incumbent senior-ranking grad student, I’ve been running the group as needed. While this is all fun, it takes a toll on research (and makes me vaguely consider a career in management). Currently I’m preparing for my first major symposium in Nashville, TN, but WORK will continue in full force once my talk is over and my fingernails grow back. The esteemed invited speaker is right before my turn onstage, so my blood pressure has been steadily rising as the session draws near.

So, if I don’t post, consider it a sign of productivity! That, or my newly acquired sleep apnea machine malfunctioned and I died in my sleep. (No, I’m not serious about death, but yes, I recently was diagnosed with severe OSA, despite fitting none of the common causes such as obesity, old age, and being male. This does however explain – and excuse? – my issues with being a zombie who falls asleep during all forms of presentations, lectures, attempted study/reading sessions, group meeting, and once even a final (I had to retake the class). It also makes for amusing stories, such as when YKW woke me up in the middle of class with a question (and a smirk). Oops. I was partially saved from mortification by knowing the answer, and lecture continued as I soon passed out again… Oops.)

All rambling aside, I was recently given a pep talk from a seasoned professor with whom I recently began collaborating. He said I need to relax and bask in the relative ease of grad school, plus have FUN and make mistakes while I’m young. Hey, that’s why I blog here, right?

The perfect peer

[This post is an abridged version of the editorial in the November 2011 issue — the full text can be accessed here, available for free to all registered users. We welcome feedback on our editorials in the comments section below.]

What makes the ideal referee report?

There is no simple answer to this question. An author probably hopes for a quick report that is positive, or at least constructively critical. An editor will most appreciate a report that provides insightful comments and helps to inform a decision. The perfect report for a reviewer is more difficult to define; perhaps one that is not misinterpreted, and ultimately improves a manuscript.

Reports simply stating that a manuscript should be accepted or rejected, without providing any justification are rarely useful. It is, for example, unlikely that two brief reports that say a manuscript is ‘great’ and recommend publication without any compelling reasons to back up these statements will outweigh a thoughtful and well-supported report that highlights lots of technical flaws.

Based on our experience of the process — taken together with feedback from our authors and referees — we suggest the following guidelines that try to satisfy the needs of everyone involved.

Reports should begin with a short summary of the work in question. This serves to focus the review, clearly stating how the work is viewed by the referee and highlighting differences between how the authors and readers will interpret the work.

Reviewers should state upfront if there are parts of a paper that they are uncomfortable evaluating. They are, however, welcome to provide opinion on areas outside their own expertise as such information can be valuable in judging general appeal of the work. Authors should keep in mind that an individual reviewer may have been chosen to represent a particular point of view.

The summary should be followed with a discussion of what has gone before, in an attempt to define the advance that has been reported. These comments are most valuable when backed by references. Following this, a summary of both the merits and problems of the research is useful. This can be far more instructive than writing a report with a particular outcome (accept/reject/revise) in mind.

A good report should clearly distinguish between the claims made and their importance versus the evidence presented in support of those claims. This brings us to another issue frequently raised in criticisms of peer review: the need for additional work. Although requests for additional experiments are regarded by some as a ‘tyranny’, such requests are often quite reasonable.

With this in mind, it may be useful to divide suggestions into different groups. First, and most important, is work that is considered necessary to support the specific claims of the paper: omitted control experiments or requests for complete characterization. Second are those that may allow broader conclusions and improve the appeal to a general audience. Third are those experiments that are not essential, but might provide interesting avenues for future studies.

Proofreading is not the role of referees. However, the writing should be as clear as possible, and reviewers are encouraged to point out areas where language is too specialized and could be improved without detriment to the scientific content of an article.

We realize that reviewing places a heavy burden on a researcher’s time, so we are extremely grateful to the reviewers without whom Nature Chemistry could not function.

You can read full the editorial here (registration is free).


Stephen Davey (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)

Reactions – Jagadese ‘JJ’ Vittal

JJ Vittal is in the Department of Chemistry at the National University of Singapore, and works on solid state and materials chemistry.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

I was introduced to chemistry by accident. My older brother advised me to take chemistry as my major for my bachelor’s degree so that I could get a job in his chemical company. However, I was overqualified when I applied to his company after I had obtained my MSc in chemistry. When I was at a different job interview I was advised to do PhD when they came to know that I was offered admission at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and I had no choice but to take it!

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

I was very much interested and good at mathematics during my school days. Probably I would have been a math teacher in one of the schools in India or a bank employee.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

We are working on various aspects of solid state chemistry and materials chemistry. Currently, we are investigating some interesting solid state reactivities of metallomacrocycles and coordination polymers. Unexpected, unusual and unpredictable results always excite researchers. We hope that these studies will throw more light into the basic understanding on how an atom and a group of atoms in the solids respond to external stimuli during structural transformation.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

I wish to dine with the great Indian mathematical legend Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar (1887-1920). Originally I had known that he was a mathematical genius, but I learned a lot about him when I read the book The Man Who Knew Infinity: A Life of the Genius Ramanujan by Robert Kanigel. Ramanujan lived indeed his life in mathematics and for mathematics. He was also a strict vegetarian, a diet which I have no problem with!

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

I usually check the crystals grown by my students. I do solve and refine crystal structures on a regular basis. I used to collect the crystallographic data but not anymore! Last time I really did something in the wet lab was about 14 years ago when my undergraduate student didn’t know how to synthesize (Ph4P)[Co(SC{O}Ph)3] and isolate the product.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

I don’t want to do any serious reading in a deserted island! I read the famous historical Tamil novel Ponniyin Selvan by Kalki long time ago. I would be happy to read this again, which is about the story of Rajaraja Chola, one of the greatest kings of the Chola Dynasty in South India. I love to listen to 70’s and 80’s Tamil and Hindi songs as well as English pop music. Taking just one music album may not be possible. If you insist, I would be happy to take Michael Jackson’s Thriller.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

I would suggest Prof. Richard J. Puddephatt who is an outstanding and wonderful organometallic chemist. For the past 10 years or so he has turned his attention to supramolecular chemistry and crystal engineering. I know Dick well and he has been a long time collaborator. I would like to hear his views on some of these questions posed here.

Reactions – Nicholas Deifel

Nicholas P. Deifel is a Visiting Professor the Department of Chemistry at Washington College in Chestertown, MD and works on applying crystal engineering to actinide containing hybrid materials.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Fireworks drove me to study chemistry. Growing up in Pittsburgh, I was exposed to local Zambelli fireworks shows over the three rivers. The exciting combinations of colors and explosions intrigued me at a young age; when I later discovered the source of these colors were metal salts I was hooked on chemistry. My love and excitement for the sciences was further crystallized through the efforts several awesome high school teachers.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

If I could go back in time and put as many years into music as I’ve put into chemistry, I’d play banjo in a blue grass band. I love bluegrass.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

I’ve been working on synthesizing several families of uranium containing materials. While the initial characterizations of these materials are complete, we’ve been lucky to pair with researchers at UC Davis, Argonne National Lab and Los Alamos National lab to look at their thermochemical and electronic properties. I hope that thermochemical data (specifically the formation enthalpies) of structurally related uranium-bearing materials will be beneficial to future discussions in areas such as waste stewardship.

In addition to experimental work, I’m busy teaching an academically diverse group undergraduate students at a small liberal arts school. They are both traditional students of chemistry and nontraditional – political science and English majors. Perhaps a bit sappy, but I hope my efforts in teaching these scientists and non-scientists lead to graduates who smartly question the practices of today and are ready to tackle the problems of tomorrow.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

Since college, I’ve been interested in both travelling and the history of the Silk Road. That said, I’d like to have dinner with Ibn Battuta, a 14th century traveler who spent over twenty years of his life discovering the far reaches of Africa and Asia. I’m impressed with the fortitude it must have taken to leave ones family and home to engage in such extensive travel in the 1300’s. Perhaps he’d have some words of wisdom to offer as I endeavor to quench my own wanderlust.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

Last Tuesday I monitored 12 simple distillations for my organic chemistry lab sections. Though I’ve done this experiment many times, it is still very cool to see the excitement each student feels when the first few drops of distillate hit their receiving flask.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

I’m a huge sci-fi nerd, so the first half of this is easy. I’d bring “The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide”, by Douglass Adams. Technically it is a collection of the first five books in the series, but I’ll assume your lawyers will allow this. Choosing one album is difficult, but it would have to be something soulful like Otis Redding’s “The Dock of the Bay.”

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

I would like to see Dr. Ahmed Zewail interviewed by Nature Chemistry, though Reactions is likely not the forum for this. I think Dr. Zewail may become the second chemist to win a Nobel Peace Prize after first winning one in Chemistry.

Reactions – Anna Krylov

Anna I. Krylov is in the Department of Chemistry at University of Southern California, and works on electronic structure and spectroscopy of electronically-excited and open-shell species.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

As a child, I read several books about scientists and inventors (Marie Curie, Robert Wood, Bell, Paster, Koch, etc), and I was taken away by their world of everyday intellectual adventure and excitement of trying to solve puzzles of Nature. It was very different from the adult world around me where people regarded their jobs as a drag and counted hours left till a weekend and days left till a vacation. I wanted to be part of that other world. I liked all science subjects. I first wanted to a geologist (travel and wild outdoor life), then I read a book on biology that had scanning electron microscope images of cells, and decided to become a biologist, then I wanted to be a physicist cleaning spectrometers with cats and exposing dishonest boarding house operators using atomic flame tests (like Wood), but somehow chemistry took over. I think I really got excited about chemistry as I was experimenting in my home-made lab (stocked with not an entirely safe selection of chemicals that went beyond a chemistry set I cajoled my parents to get for me). I really loved explosions and mischief — like sodium in a toilet or nitrogen triiodide in the teachers lounge (almost got kicked out of school for this one). And then of course colors and smells (stink bombs are fun too!) and precipitates — it was like magic!

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

Hmm, I dunno. I guess any job involving scientific research would be fun. Physics, biology, astronomy, engineering — it’s all good…

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

I am getting increasingly drawn into biological problems. Currently, I am obsessing about fluorescent proteins (from the green fluorescent protein family — yes, this yucky stuff from a jelly fish). I am fascinated by their rich photo-physics and at the moment I am just trying to understand how do they work on the atomic level (if you want to learn more — check out our recent feature article in Acc. Chem. Res. DOI:10.1021/ar2001556). I hope that eventually we will be able to transition from understanding to engineering, that is, to use what we learned to solve important practical problems, like developing better genetically-encoded labels for 3D in vivo imaging or employing fluorescent proteins in photodynamic therapies.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

Richard Feynman. He is so sharp and so funny!

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

My lab is my computer cluster — I do virtual chemistry most of the time. Two weeks ago I was looking at IrBrn- clusters (a request from a collaborator) — our goal was to understand their electronically excited states. Turns out, they are very, very tricky ;) . The last real chemistry experiment was, I think, an overpressure explosion in a General Chemistry class last spring — liquid nitrogen in a cola bottle — ummmm, very, very loud!!! One of my favorites.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

Book: “The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy”. Music: an album by “Neschastnii Sluchai”, my favorite band.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

My colleague Curt Wittig. You will know why when you get his answers.

Reactions – Huaqiang Zeng

Huaqiang Zeng is in the Department of Chemistry at National University of Singapore (NUS), and works on the applications of broadly defined, bioinspired supramolecular chemistry into both chemistry and biology.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

Chemistry has been my most favorite subject in high school due to my natural interest in science. The wonderful chemistry experiments conducted in my high school time slowly lured me into the splendid world of chemistry. When I started going to college, I knew that I wanted to study chemistry and to become a chemist someday.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

Government officer who has the power to transform the society not into “Utopia” type, which is unlikely to realize, but at least into a one that is free of poverty and hunger while providing more opportunities or according more status to the more capable, regardless of races and genders, on the fairness basis.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

The major emphasis is placed on realizing synthetic ion channels capable of transporting ions across the lipid membrane in a highly selective fashion. Priorities are given to (1) mimic and recapitulate nature’s almighty ability to hormonally combine high ion selectivity into rapid ion conduction using simplified chemical systems that have not been made possible yet and (2) devise general and reliable strategies for synthetic ion channels and pores easily tunable toward binding and differentiating various ions (and other molecular species in the future) so that we don’t simply stop at the frontiers defined by nature. The ability to do so will lead to diverse interesting applications.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

Albert Einstein, one of the world’s greatest minds. I have wanted to know his thoughts behind all those great theories and to get infected by his utmost courage and determination during “the years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, their alternations of confidence and exhaustion and the final emergence into the light”. A spiritually contagious dialog with him during the dinner shall greatly encourage me to continue venturing into the unknown world of chemistry as a pathfinder and to deal with all the uncertainties that come with it.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

I can hardly remember, but it must be biology-related one because I always completed the synthesis of target molecules first, followed by biological applications, and because I worked until my last day with Prof Peter G. Schultz at The Scripps Research Institute, it must be around the end of June of 2006, a time I left TSRI and headed to NUS to take up my current post as an Assistant Professor.

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

Being a chemist is great in that one’s knowledge-based imaginations can be physically tested, and can sometimes solve perplexing enigmas. So, rather than a book and a music album, I would love to take with me a set of laboratory apparatus (hotplate stirrer, magnetic bar, rotary evaporator, etc).

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

In balance, I will choose Professor Samuel Gellman from University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a genuine scholarly man of integrity. I met him once in the conference held in France, talked to him for a short time and was deeply impressed by his scholarly spirit, humble attitude and true love of great sciences of not only his but also others.

Element of the month – Anisotropic dysprosium

This month in his ‘in your element’ piece (subscription required) Dante Gatteschi from the University of Florence and the European Institute of Molecular Magnetism describes dysprosium in the same way as love was in La Traviata: “croce e delizia” (a curse and a blessing).

Compounds of rare-earth metals are so similar to each other that it was very tricky to separate, isolate, and identify new rare-earth elements. But Paul Emile Lecoq de Boisbaudran persevered, and when he finally isolated element 66 from its oxide through a time-consuming and multi-step separation he also came up with a most suitable name — from the Greek dys, ‘hard’ and prositos, ‘to get at’. Despite much subsequent research, including in Luigi Rolla’s lab in Florence, dysprosium remained hard to isolate in pure form until the 1950s, when ion exchange techniques came along to facilitate things.

Their diffuse 4f orbitals are mainly responsible for the properties of rare-earth elements — in particular, in some cases, compounds can show magnetic anisotropy. This is an intriguing property that continues to impart dysprosium with some exotic applications. An alloy of dysprosium with iron and terbium will, for example, change size in a varying magnetic field.

Read the article to get a first-hand account on how Dante Gatteschi and his group — some 60 years after Florence had seen much research on rare-earth separations — investigated these magnetic properties to find surprising bulk magnet and single-molecule magnet species. No delizia without croce though, because this story does involve quantum mechanical studies to try and understand these electronic and magnetic behaviours…


Anne Pichon (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)

Essay competition: And the winner is…

Thanks to everyone who participated in our writing competition! We were delighted to receive so many entries (almost 100 in total). Some elements – copper and nitrogen in particular – proved more popular than others, but all seven elements up for grabs were well represented, we had fun reading the essays, and we learned some quirky anecdotes in the process (I shall share these in future posts).

Believe me, the judging was by no means easy. But with input from all of the Nature Chemistry editors and our two external judges – previously introduced here – we got down to a selection of seven essays and we are now delighted to announce the winners (in alphabetic atomic number order of the elements):

- Helium

Christine Herman, PhD student

Department of Chemistry, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA

- Nitrogen

Michael Tarselli, research chemist

PharmAgra Labs in Brevard, North Carolina, USA

- Sodium

Margit Muller, PhD Student

Department of Pharmacology and Pharmacotherapy, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

- Copper

Tiberiu Moga, medical student

Faculty of Medicine, University of Toronto, Canada.

- Bromine

Matt Rattley, undergraduate chemistry student

University of Oxford, England, UK

- Indium

Catherine Renouf, PhD student in materials chemistry

University of St Andrews, Scotland, UK

- Plutonium

Jan Hartman, undergraduate chemistry student

RWTH Aachen University, Germany


We are now planning to publish the winning essays throughout the next few months as part of the regular ‘in your element’ feature (that’s when I’ll share anecdotes with you on the blog), starting with our December issue.

Many thanks again to everyone who sent us an essay, we hope you enjoyed writing them, we certainly enjoyed reading them!


Anne Pichon (Associate Editor, Nature Chemistry)

Reactions – Christophe Copéret

Christophe Copéret is at the Department of Chemistry, ETH Zurich in Switzerland, where he works on functional materials with applications in catalysis, molecular recognition, imaging and microelectronics.

1. What made you want to be a chemist?

When I was a kid, I read books from my older brothers, and one of them discussed about possible jobs in the world of adults! I was struck by a section dealing with “ingénieur chimiste”, because that job dealt with making complex structures and processes using small Legos, named molecules. This was definitely one of the key reasons for me to become a chemist, and this was further motivated over the years by very good and rigorous high-school teachers in physics and chemistry.

2. If you weren’t a chemist and could do any other job, what would it be – and why?

I would certainly love to be a historian and a sociologist, because I am fascinating by the history of human beings, but a more realistic alternative would be to be a chef.

3. What are you working on now, and where do you hope it will lead?

We are dealing with the understanding of chemistry occurring at the surfaces of materials. We hope we can reach the level of precision of today’s molecular biology and chemistry with complex inorganic systems in such a way that we can design very complex functional materials via a molecular approach like we currently do with molecules.

4. Which historical figure would you most like to have dinner with – and why?

I would be thrilled to be able to have dinner with Tocqueville; he had an amazing foresight of political systems regarding the advantages and disadvantages of different democratic systems, while he was working for the King of France. His views were so clear at the time that they are still applicable today, explaining most of our current world turbulences.

5. When was the last time you did an experiment in the lab – and what was it?

A few weeks ago, helping students with glass-blowing (a very important technique in our lab and a good way to relax between proposal and manuscript writing!).

6. If exiled on a desert island, what one book and one music album would you take with you?

Choosing is always difficult, I guess I would go with the collection “A la recherche du temps perdu” from Marcel Proust and if I had to take a single book it would be the last volume “Le temps retrouvé”.

Concerning music, it would be a piece of one the Russian composers, and I would then probably pick the piano concerto n°3 from Rachmaninov.

7. Which chemist would you like to see interviewed on Reactions – and why?

This would certainly be among emerging scientists. I would thus pick within close collaborators and friends, with whom I have enjoyed discussing chemistry: Olivier Maury from ENS Lyon, specialist of luminescent molecules and materials, and Chloé Thieuleux from CPE Lyon, experts in material chemistry.